“This is the beginning of months for you:” Egyptian Calendars, the birthdays of the gods, and why Goshen was the “best of the Land.”

sphinxEx 12:2 This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you.

Slaves don’t live by their own timetable, and after over eighty years in slavery (we know they were enslaved during the reigns of two Pharaohs but we are not told when the actual slavery started), they once again had to be set straight – this article will show you the reason for the confusion. 

In preparation for teaching Exodus, I reviewed all my Egyptian books because it was very much Egyptian religion (the first mention in scripture of anything is important and Egypt is where we have the first mention of heathen priests, magicians and our first real exposure to false religion) that infected Israel during their sojourning. Like I always say, “Aaron didn’t figure out how to make a golden calf out of his own imagination, that took a specific skillset.” He had seen something that was generally only seen within the confines of a Temple or in a public processional and on top of that, he actually made one – but we’ll talk about that in a few weeks.

Egyptian literature is full of interesting and funny stories like this one about the birth of the “big five” gods and goddesses that also gives us an insight into the Ancient Near Eastern mindset of what gods (unlike YHVH) were like and this one provides a window for the ancient calendar system as well. I enjoy studying this because we see in these stories, oftentimes, the reasons for the plagues on Egypt.

Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis and Nephthys were born during the last five days of the Egyptian year (called epagomenals) but their year is unlike the Hebrew year which starts in the Spring, or the late era Roman year which started in January (beginning in about 45/46 BCE). Egyptian years are tied into the inundation (flooding) of the Nile, which begins in late June – and is today celebrated in August at the culmination. You know, in the ancient world you really don’t find the birthdays of any gods pointed out, Egypt seems to be rather unique and only seems to be mentioned as a way of “correcting” the calendar by acknowledging that 360 days was’t truly a solar year. In fact, I have found birthdays of gods to be singularly unimportant (and unmentioned) until we get to Imperial Cult, when the deified Emperor’s birthday became a holiday. Up until then, the focus was on their lives and their birth would only be mentioned in relationship to the circumstances around it, not related to the dates which were hard to pin down with any accuracy. It was the legend around the birth, and not the date, that was mentionable because calendars worldwide were a total mess until 45 BCE (before then, Roman months alternated between having either 29 or 31 days, ugh) and we cannot accurately tie ancient events to a Roman calendar system that wasn’t even set in stone until then. In fact, the Roman year for a long time only had ten months with the entire winter kinda left out in the cold, so to speak. Hence in Egypt we have rare birthdays of gods pinpointed to the last five days of the Egyptian year. That’s why we see ancient events narrowed down to a year and a season within that year, as best as possible, but even that can sometimes be debatable. The Bible, of course, will sometimes name a date on the Hebrew calendar which then still cannot be absolutely lined up with a Roman calendar date that was not yet in existence.

The Egyptian calendar was 360 days long, with three ten day weeks in a month, and only three seasons, beginning with the inundation (flooding) of the Nile – the time when all the silt was washed down from Upper (southern) Egypt into Lower (northern) Egypt and most significantly, into the Land of Goshen – making it the fertile “best of the Land” – the ideal place for YHVH to place the Israelites. Remember that everyone had to sell their land to Pharaoh in order to pay for food during the last years of the famine but that would not have extended to Joseph’s family because they received their provisions for free. Can you imagine the animosity towards his family once a Pharaoh came to power who did not know Joseph and all these foreigners were landowners and the native-born Egyptians were tenant farmers??

Anyway, I digress, again. So the Egyptians had a dilemma – they had a 12 month calendar with 30 days each month but that left them with a problem at the end of their calendar year at the arrival of the inundation – the beginning of new life in Egypt. So they developed a mythology about the goddess Nut who was cursed with the inability to give birth during all 360 days of the year by her grandfather Re (after having given birth already to the sun, stars and planets). After playing dice with Thoth, she won five more days and was able to bear children during those days, evading her grandfather’s curse – as they were not considered actual days of the year. Egyptian legalism! During this time she gave birth to Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis and Nephthys – the “big five” in Egypt.

(Note: Horus started out as the brother of Osiris and Isis and in later years became identified as their son – in this type of early period mythology he is called Horus the Elder)

People often ask me about my source material for Egyptology, so I am going to try and list all the useful books I have on it. Egypt, as I was explaining in yesterday’s Context for Kids video, is where Israel was born – during the hundreds of years they spent there, Egypt became their cultural context and it caused a lot of problems in the wilderness. They had to relearn everything and become an entirely new people – and one of their chief problems was a continual turning back to Egypt. For my Context for Kids parents who are reading this – exercise great caution in simply handing over any Egyptian book to your kids. Egyptian mythology is filled with the abominations spoken of in Leviticus 18 – pretty much all of them.

This specific myth, I took out of Barbara Watterson’s The Gods of Ancient Egypt but you can find it in practically any Egyptian book. I like to recommend this book to people because it is a very easy read – and considering it was written by a PhD Egyptologist that is rare. PhDs generally don’t write the language I call “normal people” but instead write to impress other scholars.

Information on the actual epagomenal days – Anthony Spalinger, Some Remarks on the Epagomenal Days in Ancient Egypt, Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 33-47

Donald B Redford, The Ancient Gods Speak is what I have been reading lately. The information I have been teaching lately about the Egyptian priestly/magician class, the mummification of Jacob and Joseph, and such have been coming from this book. He compiled articles from the best of the best of Egyptian experts from all over the world, in their respective specialties – which is always helpful because no one knows everything and it is nice to hear from the people who really know their stuff in the one area. 

John D Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament. Dr Currid has been the Project Director for Bethsaida Excavations Project in Israel for almost 20 years.

Anthony S Mercatante, Who’s Who in Egyptian Mythology – this was my first Egypt book, very readable but not very detailed

Sir Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion – One of the first books on Egyptology and okay but we have learned a lot since 1899. Never use him as your sole source of information, make sure that modern research backs him up because there were many misconceptions in his time.

Richard H Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art – this has been more useful than I first imagined. I originally bought this book because Rico Cortes recommended it for it’s description of the Djed column, the backbone of Osiris that I believe was the Column of Fire that terrified the Egyptians in the wilderness because it would have been seen as a harbinger of death for Pharaoh. But I found better information on this in Redford.

Also, Wilkinson’s The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.

Ogden Goelet, The Egyptian Book of the Dead – huge and gorgeous book about Egyptian afterlife beliefs, which are vital to understanding the mindset of the Egyptians and especially the Pharaohs.

The Anchor Bible Dictionary

Karel Van der Toorn, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible – can’t even begin to tell you how much I respect this author, one of the best minds on the subject of ANE religion as it pertains to the Bible. His Nimrod research is amazing, well documented, and does not at all line up with what is being taught in the online urban legends of religious evolution.

Sir J Gardiner Wilkinson Manners and Customs of the Egyptians Vol 1, 2 and 3 (it’s an older book – available for online download at archive.org) – originally printed in 1836 and is probably most well known as having been misrepresented by another author in an age where checking references was a lot harder than it is now.

Douglas J Brewer and Emily Teeter, Egypt and the Egyptians – Brewer spent 18 years in the field in Egypt and is a professor of anthropology, Teeter is research associate and curator of ancient Egyptian and Nubian antiquities at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.

I have some other books, and I hope I haven’t forgotten any good ones as my book shelf is in disarray at the moment, but mostly I wouldn’t want you to waste your time or money on a lot of them.

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